"It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit."
-- Charles in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit"
Three's a crowd in the Codomine home. There's the novelist Charles and his wife, Ruth, and then along comes Elvira, the ghost of Charles' first wife.
Theatrical hauntings have rarely been more wickedly funny.
Noel Coward could twist a situation with the turn of a phrase, and with "Blithe Spirit," the opening production of the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre season, his take on the battle of the sexes is even more twisted than usual.
Charles and Ruth are a contented couple when they invite a kooky clairvoyant to perform a seance. He's fully expecting a fraud but instead is visited by the ghost of his ex. He's spooked, of course, but Ruth can't see or hear the apparition and thinks madness has overtaken him.
"I think Noel Coward is brilliant in that he does most of the work for us," says Vera Varlamov, who plays the ghostly Elvira. "The writing is crisp and intelligent and funny, and for me it gives me a nice structure in which to play and have fun and fly. I just did another Noel Coward in Orlando; people are delighted by it and I'm delighted to play with this playwright."
By fly, she may not be talking metaphorically.
When Elvira first arrives on the scene, Ruth can't see her. For Daina Michelle Griffith, last year's PG Performer of the Year, that's just one of the challenges of the part.
"To not look at this one when she's floating around?" she says, looking squarely at her co-star. "You're like, something pretty's floating by, but I don't see her. She's saying something, but I don't hear her. There are times when we are right beside each other or behind each other but I'm looking at the man [she turns to Dan Rodden, who plays Charles]. It's brilliant, but it has to play so well from the audience."
Mr. Rodden, new to Pittsburgh, has played Charles before, 13 years ago for the New American Theatre in Rockford, Md. He's serene for now, seated alongside set pieces in the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland, but just wait until the curtain goes up.
Despite his previous encounter with the role, he says this feels like the first time, a haunting in a new setting with a new director, Alan Stanford.
"Plus I've got two other wives, so of course their interpretation is going to be different than the first time," he says, chuckling.
Rehearsals have been a fun fest of activities, including observing Mary Rawson as Madame Arcati. A recent production in London saw Dame Angela Lansbury reprise her 2009 Tony-winning role as the madcap medium and inspired London Telegraph critic Charles Spencer to write of "Blithe Spirit":
"It is a comedy that still startles and delights. Coward wrote it in the darkest days of the Second World War and in the circumstances its determinedly frivolous attitude to morality seems downright heroic. Yet it is also a comedy that makes you shiver. ..."
The rest of that paragraph is a bit of a spoiler, even if the play has been around since 1940.
"A lot of the comedy comes from the fact that we're all playing these high-brow, stiff-upper-lip British characters from the '40s who find themselves thrust into this ridiculous situation. It's playing the type of people they are against the situation that makes the funny happen."
The three actors were working on the tongue twisters that Coward has set forth for the cast. For one thing, "There are so many words!" Mr. Rodden notes.
Ms. Griffith says it would be difficult to pick just one line that was giving her fits as rehearsals barrelled toward opening night, then it came to her. "The one I was hung up on -- When was that? The end of last week? -- was, 'As far as WASPish [she flubs it a bit] female psychology goes, there's a strong vain of it in you.' ... 'WASPish.' My mouth is just like, 'What are you doing to me?' "
The actress who began in musical theater is thrilled to be challenging her skills in ways she never expected.
"I remember seeing 'Three Sisters,' and that's all I wanted to do in my life, but there was no way anyone was going to take me seriously because I was a belting dancer," she says. "And now to be able to say that I finally get to do a Noel Coward ... It also makes sense. I wouldn't have had the skill set at 24-26, I would have been too scared to even approach it. And now it's the right time."
"My favorite line is, 'Oh, Charles,' " Ms. Varlamov says with emphasis and a giggle. It's fraught with possibilities -- think Mary Tyler Moore's "Oh, Rob," on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." "I say it a few times but across the board, it's my favorite line so far."
Her onstage husband asks if she's "had a talk" about her character's makeup yet.
"No, but I've had a talk with me about it," she answers to laughter. "I love all that stuff."
Ms. Varlamov appeared last season in PICT's "Our Class," a searing drama about neighbor turning on neighbor during World War II. "Blithe Spirit" is 180 degrees in another direction. She admits it can be freeing for an actress when laughter is the main goal.
"The point here is to entertain, to delight," Ms. Varlamov says. "I do find myself making choices that aren't necessarily to tell the grander truth of humanity but to shed light on what is funny."